Leah Naomi Green Interview
“I feed you / with a store of love // I’ve gathered like a taproot / since my birth.”
- "Week Twelve: Taproot"
As the Bradford pear tree outside my window began bursting into flower in the newfound spring sunlight, I had the unmatched pleasure of speaking with Leah Naomi Green—teacher, homesteader, and poet extraordinaire. Her first full-length collection of poetry, The More Extravagant Feast (Graywolf Press 2020), was the 2019 winner of the Walt Whitman Award of the Academy of American Poets. Written with an attentive and loving eye, The More Extravagant Feast explores themes of pregnancy, motherhood, and interconnection. It is a triumph of a book which fosters a necessary awareness of our dependency on ecological systems and on others.
In this interview, Leah and I discuss The More Extravagant Feast, the exchanges of the human body, and what it means to have a reciprocal relationship with our planet and those who occupy it beside us.
The More Extravagant Feast is very much a book of the seeds of things, the beginnings. Therefore, it feels fitting to ask: where did this book begin for you?
There aren’t really any beginnings—not discrete ones anyway, and the same of course is true with endings.
That is the fascination at the center of this book: I don’t know when my daughters “began” any more than I know when I began, or my parents, or when the seed in my garden “begins” to be the fruit, or when that fruit “begins” to be the seed.
It’s all always already there, and conditions transform seeds one way or another (into fruit we could say or, perhaps, into compost for some other life—all eventually into compost for some other life).
I can tell you that pregnancy was a necessary condition for this book to be what it currently is. A lot of ideas, which had been abstract to me for a long time—important to me but abstract—became unavoidably real in pregnancy. Thich Nhat Hanh’s idea of “interbeing” for instance (the idea that without a you there is no me, and vice versa) or the belief that humans are animals and not divided from the world by some concept of “nature”—those had long been important ideas to me. But when I was pregnant, they were simply physical realities; the reality, for instance, that, while pregnant, I could not discern my child’s body from my body and could not discern my body from the food that my partner and I grow and eat. Likewise, when I was nursing, there was no doubt that I was a mammal; it was very clear.
So although the seeds weren’t the beginning for me, pregnancy was the condition those seeds needed to become fruit.
I want to follow this thread of interbeing, nourishment, and the unending cycle of things becoming other things. In the poem “Narration, Transubstantiation,” you write: “When we eat, / what we eat is the body // of the world.” Can you talk about these recurring themes and how they relate to one another in your poetry and in your life?
One of the central realizations of my poems (and yes, my life) is that ecology and economy are not separable. There is no “nature” we can “protect” that is separate from “resources” we “use”, there is only reciprocal exchange, and this exchange can be one of deep response-ability and gratitude. I have learned a lot from Wendell Berry, Robin Wall Kimmerer, Thich Nhat Hanh, and have learned a lot from the garden and woods themselves. A word like “nature” enables a me to put distance between myself and my actions (e.g. the effects I necessarily have on the world by eating and breathing), as well as to put distance between myself and the gifts and I constantly receive (in order to eat and breath, stay warm, type on a computer, ride in a car, etc.). When I get break down the divide that the construction of “nature” would assert between myself and the world, I find that I am “eating” all the time, and that what I eat “is the body of the world.”
And so, yes, the “when we eat” line is to say: we are always eating, and eating is not an act of shame, and eating doesn’t have to be a participation in violence (as it very often becomes through invisible systems such as industrial agriculture). In participating with gratitude in exchanges of life (the deer’s body becoming my body, for instance in the poems “Venison” or “The More Extravagant Feast”) eating is a sacred and endless continuation of life.
The More Extravagant Feast attempts to place my own pregnant and nursing body within this trophic exchange, as both eater and as food for my children, and eventually for the rest of “the body of the world.”
I believe that the creation of poetry, or of art in general, finds itself in similarly interconnected webs. As poets, we are influenced by other poets that we admire, and, in turn, poets look toward us for inspiration. In the same vein, not only does each poem feed off of our experiences, but we also learn from each poem we write. You mention that you have learned a lot from Wendell Berry, Robin Wall Kimmerer, and Thich Nhat Hanh, for instance. What have you learned from the development of your own poems, your collection? What do you hope other poets take away from your work?
I think one of the best things a poem can do for a reader is say “I see you”. In many ways this is what the poem says to me as I write it, and it seems that the more genuinely I allow myself to be seen by the poem as I write it, the more genuine the seeing in that poem becomes.
I don’t hope for any specific takeaways from my work, but I do want to build a hallway for the reader, solidly structured I hope, but with enough space that the reader might walk into it, and perhaps even encounter themselves there.
On the topic of building a structure for readers to move through—structure being a topic which I am ever-obsessed with—The More Extravagant Feast is comprised of four roughly equal sections: “Seed and Fugue,” “River and Fugue,” “And I You,” and “The More Extravagant Feast.” When did this structure come along in the process of making this collection a reality? Did the flow of the book ever look different?
I find great pleasure in the relational life that words have on the page. We all witness this in writing: we put the word “sister” into a poem, for instance, or “God”, all the other words in the poem become new versions of themselves. Humans are the same way of course, and every living thing.
There was a lot of pleasure and insight for me as this relational life transitioned from the scale of words within each poem to the scale of poems within the book. It taught me a lot about the poems themselves to experience the different possible relationships that they could have with one another depending on sequence, sections, etc. It was lovely to watch the poems step into (and develop) new aspects of themselves within the “shared space” of the book. The four sections were an outgrowth of that process.
The book’s structure really came together for me when I decided to use the pregnancy and nursing poems (many of which are named for weeks of pregnancy) as scaffolding for a narrative arc. Or perhaps as stepping-stones within the deeper work of the book. My hope is that they created enough stability for the reader to move through time (stone to stone) but also allowed for some molten, non-narrative material to flow between stones—that non-narrative material doing, I hope, the work to process gestation more deeply.
Yes, I can’t commend you enough on the relationships and tensions that you established in the sequence of these poems. The sequence that affected me the most was your placement of “C-Section” following “Venison.” The image of a butchered deer directly preceding a c-section is jarring, but the pairing of the two also hearkens back to that pervasive theme of interbeing: the body of the deer becomes the body of the mother becomes the body of the child.
The way you described the interplay between narrative and non-narrative poems in the book was gorgeous. The poems that find themselves outside of the larger gestation narrative—poems like “Seed and Fugue” and “Carrot” and even “The More Extravagant Feast”—really add texture to and even, at times, personify the bountiful natural world that your speaker is situated within. In other words, these poems allow space for readers to stop and take a look around.
This personification of the natural world is particularly present in poems which center one of two things: the garden and the hunt. You mentioned before that you and your partner grow your own food, and, in an excellent interview with Tyler Truman Julian for Puerto del Sol, you said that the two of you hunt and raise chickens, as well. How long have you been providing the majority of your own food? How has this responsibility affected your relationship with the world around you? Have any challenges arisen as a result of changing weather patterns or climate issues?
Thank you for your insight and your kindness! I am so glad to hear that you felt “space to stop and take a look around” in this book. I do think that one of the best things that art can offer is the chance to step into someone else’s mind and then return, with some spaciousness, to our own.
As for “personification” of the world … I suppose I am okay with it, as long as human “people” are also thoroughly “worldified” (which is to say, if this is not a unilateral or colonialist projection of human values). And here again is my interest in dissolving the line humans have drawn around “Nature” to “preserve” it from humans and the line we’ve drawn around human and life and human bodies in order to believe that we are not animals or have no effect on nature in our daily lives.
Humans are what Graham Swift calls “the story-telling animal.” I am so in love with human stories and with the meanings we make, and make, and make. But it is important to me to be clear that the meanings I make in the world are not somehow “Nature’s” meanings. It is my mind I see when I look through my eyes at the garden, and my stories I hear in the woods, though I hope always to do more listening than telling, and I thrill at the moments when I can move beyond narrative. At the same time though, I know there is no “me” that is not made from the garden and woods (and the infinite other “food” I consume in my actions and relationships).
And yes: food. I live in an ecological community in Southwest Virginia. I have been here participating in the garden and woods since 2008. My partner joined me in 2009. Because he and I met at a Buddhist monastery, it was quite a process for us to decide on hunting, fishing, and eggs as our major sources of protein, but it was a decision which we were ultimately clear on for ecological reasons. The hunting of a deer, especially in Virginia where deer are “overpopulated” due to human habitat fragmentation, seemed an ultimately kinder “environmental” act than buying tofu or beans shipped to us via fossil fuel. Those relationships to deer and fish and eggs have been some of the most sacred relationships of my life. There is no hiding in those relationships from the fact that my body’s energy comes always from other, very real bodies and will go always into other bodies. This is to say, there is no pretending I’m separate.
I think you are right to use the word responsibility for this, but it is simultaneously gift, and I’m just so grateful that, living where I live, I get to see the exchanges which enable my life—and all life—and which take place everywhere. The human animal, it turns out, is also a very sight-dependent one, and being able to see the exchanges… well, it matters a lot to me. It helps me. I realized just the other day that feeling this responsibility/gift reciprocity—the reciprocity of eating, breathing, heating with wood, caring for family and friends, and being cared for by them—is the greatest source of joy and gratitude in my life.
As for climate issues, I don’t think it’s me or my family we need to worry about—at least not yet. We certainly see the differences already in our fields and woods (maple sugaring happens earlier every year for instance, frosting is harder to predict), but it is the farmers on the margins around the world (those who do not also have other jobs) that we need to be supporting now.
“My husband carries a stone / in his pocket. // Each week he finds a bigger one. / I carry a child.” So begins “Week Five: Measure.” In “Week Ten: Plum,” the child that the speaker carries is likened to a plum that “must grow, // planted as it is in the dew.”
The reciprocity, and the deep sense of humans as part of nature no matter how removed many of us may feel from it, is the beating heart of this collection. The “worldification” you apply to the humans in these poems is deft and tender, and very significant. It would be a mistake to read this collection as anything but an ode to interconnectedness.
What is a piece of advice you would give to someone looking to have a more reciprocal relationship with nature rather than a careful, distanced one? And in what ways can we, as individuals, do our part to support those fellow human beings most affected by climate change?
Translation from one life to another is always—well—translation. Lives can be so different. But an outgrowth of my life here, which my students have sometimes found useful in their lives, is to ask of things: where does this come from? And where will this go? Approaching the things in one’s life as though they have histories (because of course they do) and as though they have futures (because of course they do) can be a really helpful practice both of decentering oneself as “consumer,” and of revealing the living (though not always thriving) networks involved in powering say, an elevator or a meal. Even when I can’t answer those questions, just remembering that everything and everyone has their own life and history, and that those lives will continue in some form beyond my sight—it can be a practical way of remembering that there’s no “nature” out there separate from daily lives and actions—there is only the world, and we live in it—and there are no people out there separate from that world.
This loving sense of awareness which you carry through your life and which you share with others is inspiring and so sorely needed, especially as the divisions between us all only seem to grow. In your collection, you provide a necessary space for readers to ask these questions—of histories and futures that are not their own—and to reflect.
The More Extravagant Feast is your first full-length poetry collection—can we expect more from you in the near future?
I have been writing a lot since The More Extravagant Feast came out. Writing is such a gift—the act of writing I mean. And now that my three-year-old sleeps, I can have a few hours to just write before the birds and the house wake.
I read a lot of Lucille Clifton over the winter, and she reminded me how to just say a thing: how to let a thing that needs saying be complex without complicating it. That has been good for my writing, some of which is on its way out now, most of which is here until it’s ready. Yes, there is still much more.
Leah Naomi Green’s first full-length poetry collection, The More Extravagant Feast (Graywolf Press, 2020), was selected by Li-Young Lee as the winner of the 2019 Walt Whitman Award, given by the Academy of American Poets.
The More Extravagant Feast is available from Graywolf Press.
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